“The Word” Begets Words

Lucy Gellman Photo Jasmine Smith had a story to tell. But she didn’t want the audience to stop at listening to her voice.

“Listen to my hands,” she beseeched audience members. “They are trying to tell you something. If you don’t open your senses you will miss it.”

The audience leaned in, silence where giggles and a smattering of high-fives had been just moments before. Fifty or so young faces snapped to attention, some catching the low light as they pursed their lips and nodded their heads. Smith’s hands traveled through the air like small, hollow-boned birds. Around her, everyone was hanging on, trying not to miss a beat. 

Smith’s untitled piece traveled from her hands and strong, uncompromising voice to several New Haveners’ ears as part of The Word: Citywide High School Poetry Jam, a now-annual chance for several New Haven Public School (NHPS) students to perform spoken word poetry on which they’ve been working for a number of months.

Originally a collaboration among Word founder Aaron Jafferis, a New Haven hip-hop poet and playwright, former Institute Library Director Will Baker, and several collaborators at The Future Project, the program has since grown into a robust organizing effort by Jafferis, poet Ifeanyi Awachie, current Institute Library Director Natalie Elicker, teaching artists Salwa Abdussabur and Siul Hughes, and Future Project units at different schools. Friday night, all of the members convened at the Neighborhood Music School on Audubon Street for an end-of-year showcase.   

Fact: High school poetry takes a specific kind of mindset. There’s a lot of young love, with rib cages getting blasted open and metaphorical pants falling down and metaphorical belts pulling them back up. Disclaimers come with the weight of the world attached to them. Bullying and misogyny raise their thorny heads a lot, and never in ways that are easy to stomach. Relationships are made and broken and made again all in the space of the stage, with only the help of a mic and three to four minutes of exposition. 

But if this was exhausting Friday night, it was equally necessary and empowering — here were the city’s young and brave voices laid bare, asking only for 90 minutes of listeners’ time. Indeed, as Jafferis himself wrote before the event, “conversations about poems turned into conversations about life turned into conversations about how to be human.” Eli Whitney’s Anthony Rivera did a takedown of ADHD and adolescent depression that had fellow high schooler Debralee Valentin — and several audience members —whooping for a happy ending. Matt Santiago a.k.a. Benny Sazon dismantled social media, economic inequity, and human predisposition in a two-minute rap. Several young women, including Anisa Anuar and Oviance “Tweety” Shuler, came with ballads of self-love and reflections on race and socioeconomic class that struck and stuck as needed, rhythmic meditations on the city and its residents. 

“The Word is something that we hope will continue to grow,” said Jafferis at the event. His words from earlier that night of the students — that “some nights, I realize, my life depends on them” — floated into the space, and crackled to life. 

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